Universities (Financial Situation)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th January 1978.

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Photo of Mr Gerald Fowler Mr Gerald Fowler , The Wrekin 12:00 am, 13th January 1978

I did nothing of the sort. I pointed out that I did not agree with the Committee's view on some other matters, but I refused to get involved in the controversy developing over those two sentences because I wanted to involve myself in it today rather than on Monday.

The view of the PAC was contested by the Association of University Teachers which said that since 1971–72 there had been a decline of 6 per cent. in university income per student. The right hon. Member for Taunton took them on and said, with some justification in regard to the technicality of the calculations, that the association was using the wrong baseline and that the reduction had been less. The Committee stuck to its original view.

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said that there had been a sharp decline since 1973–74 after the first two years of the quinquennium. The right hon. Member for Taunton became embroiled with the CVCP on the exact interpretation of the figures, but there was general agreement that there had been a decline of 9 per cent. or 10 per cent. during that period. There is schizophrenia on the Benches opposite. The right hon. Member for Taunton does not agree with the hon. Member for Pentlands that there is a crisis in the universities.

Let us assume that the 9 per cent. or 10 per cent. decline in university income per student since 1973–74 is correct. In my local education authority there have, in the last three or four years, been two reductions of 10 per cent. in the capitation allowances for secondary school pupils. These are reductions in absolute terms and take no account of inflation in the prices of goods which the capitation allowances are designed to purchase. I shall not give other examples of reductions in educational expenditure because all hon. Members know about them. If there has been a decline in university income of 9 per cent. or 10 per cent. per student since 1973–74, the universities have not suffered more severely than some other sectors of education over that period. There has been a national crisis and it is pointless talking of a specific crisis in universities. I agree with what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said on this point.

There are certain matters which have caused undue resentment in universities. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned the question of fees and I have some sympathy with what he said. I am notoriously opposed to the present level of fees and I note that an announcement has just been made to increase fees again, admittedly only to keep pace with inflation, but it is still an increase, and it maintains fee income at about 20 per cent. of the total income of universities and other higher education institutions. I said on Monday that, while this might be tolerable at the moment, it will cause grave problems in higher education as a whole in the late 1980s when the size of the 18-year-old age group will decline rapidly. Higher education institutions will be competing for students and the universities will suffer less than other institutions because they are in a better position to compete. Some of the colleges of higher education that we are now creating may suffer severely if there is an advantage in competing for students because of the fee income which they bring with them. I do not like the present level of tuition fees for that reason and for the reason given by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed.

On the subject of additional revenue, the PAC said: Insofar as this comes from students from richer overseas countries we welcome the proposed increases. I do not welcome them. It is absurd to talk about richer and poorer countries. We should be talking about people from richer or poorer backgrounds. There is a higher concentration of students from poor backgrounds in poorer countries and we sometimes slip into talking about the countries when it is the students' home background and personal resources which are relevant.

I do not like rationing by the purse. I should like us to move towards lower absolute fee levels or at least levels which fail to keep pace with general inflation and hence put a smaller burden on the student and represent a lower proportion of university income.